Wednesday, 19 March 2008

In defence of 'populism'

Stephen Morris, from Coorparoo, Australia, has started a one-man letter-writing campaign against the Economist's use of the word 'populist', which has now been picked up and backed by the Economist's own Democracy in America blog. “Exactly when did 'populist', enter your style guide as the preferred all-purpose pejorative?” Mr Morris asks in a letter published in the February 21st edition of the newspaper. “Given that neither John Edwards nor Mike Huckabee have come anywhere near winning their parties' nomination, it is far from clear that they are even 'popular', let alone 'populist'.”

In the March 19th edition he continues:

Sir - Despite my recent letter (February 23rd) you still throw the term “populist” around with abandon. Your leader (“Hope and fear”, March 1st) used the term “populist” or “populism” no fewer than five times in describing the Democratic Party's candidates.

But when we turn to your article on John McCain (“No country for old men”, March 1st) it is a completely different story. Here we read: “Mr McCain sells himself as a scourge of special interests and hammer of lobbyists. He also styles himself a hands-on reformer who has tried to fix America's campaign-finance system.” Is this not populism? If not, why not? If so, why is the word so conspicuously avoided?

Mr Morris' concern is misplaced. 'Populists' do not have to be popular; they merely have to court popularity at the expense of good policy. Of course, unless a candidate is utterly transparent in advocating a measure which he or she knows makes little sense simply to pander to a portion of the electorate, the label 'populist' will be no more than an opinion, but one can hardly accuse the Economist of shying away from regularly casting judgement on whatever it sees fit. After all, it was set up in 1848 to engage in a “severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an worthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress”, and pejorative terms form a natural part of its armoury in its self-declared struggle.

The Democratic candidates' economic policies are labelled 'populist' because the author considers them designed to improve poll ratings rather than the country's economy. John McCain's attempts at tackling Washington politics-as-usual are not cast as such because, whilst they may or may not be popular, the author considers them worthy. The sensitive reader may disagree with this analysis, but they should be challenged by it, not troubled. Elsewhere in the Economist, Mr McCain has come in for his own share of criticism, and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama their own portion of praise.

Used discerningly, 'populist' undoubtedly deserves to keep its place in the lexicon of advocacy journalism.

Sunday, 2 March 2008

News Reviews through the ages

As seen in this month's issue of the DA News Review:

The first humans emerged from the African savannah around 200,000 years ago. It took them over 190,000 years to develop writing, at least another 3,000 to perfect paper, and 2,000 more to publish the first ever DA News Review, a mere four copies of which were printed back in March 2007, which makes the issue before you our first anniversary special. Of course, by definition, the Sisyphean course of human history did not go unrecorded before then, and the men and women of the primitive past found other ways to mark and comment upon the rise and fall of empires and civilisations, the ebb and flow of wars and financial crises, and the derring-do of the Luxembourgian anti-terrorist unit. None of these means were, perhaps, as well informed, sophisticatedly articulated or incisively argued as the DA News Review, but they existed nonetheless.

In the 5th Century BCE Darius the Great proclaimed the legitimacy of his ascent to the Persian kingship on a 15 by 25 metre large inscription at Behistun, and Heroditus depicted in The Histories Darius' decisive setback at Marathon, but these accounts were deliberately a step removed from modern expectations of dispassionate analysis and verified detail. We move closer to the exacting standards demanded of the DA News Review team with the Acta Diurna of ancient Rome, which saw government notices published daily on metal or stone, or the Kai Yuan Za Bao of Tang Dynasty China, which saw political and domestic news handwritten on silk and distributed throughout the empire. In medieval Europe, texts such as the Gesta Francorum recording the course of the First Crusade were repeatedly redacted to reach ever wider audiences, while troubadours would travel from court to court singing tales of scandal and war. Newssheets began to be produced to be read out by town criers, and by 1563 the Venetian republic was charging one gazeta (approximately three-fourths of a penny) per person for public reports of the war with the Ottoman Empire, a practice which begot the modern term 'Gazette'. Pamphlets covering specific events came to be produced, distributed and eventually collated into newsbooks, which evolved into the first periodical summaries of the news by the late 16th century, among the more prominent being the Mercurius Gallobelgicus, which ran from 1588 to 1638. The first fully fledged 'newspaper' is generally held to be Johann Carolus' Relation aller Fürnemmen und gedenckwürdigen Historien, published in the imperial free city of Straßburg in 1605, and from there the medium spread out across Europe, reaching Hapsburg lands by 1620 and England a year later. Current affairs journalism has flourished in the centuries since, serving as a repository of fact, a forum for opinion and an outlet for dissent. As the so-called 'Fourth Estate', the press has played a vital role as the lifeblood of the body politic of modern democracies, checking governmental excess and galvanising public opinion, telling truth to power and plebeians alike. Some have criticised over-mighty media empires for toppling governments and orchestrating wars and coups. Yet we at the DA News Review have, in our year-long and illustrious past, endeavoured not to illegitimately exploit our (admittedly deserved) influence as opinion formers on the global scene, beyond the bare weight and wit of the arguments we present between these pages. We shall, of course, continue to restrain ourselves in the future.

Whilst the DA News Review is the natural first recourse for current affairs analysis, it is not alone in the field. Each and every open society is blessed with a plethora of titles to choose from, and, with a hat-tip to the finest British political satire of the 1980s, Yes Prime Minister, whichever one is chosen says a lot about the chooser. Here in the Land am Strome, Der Kurier is read by Austrians who think that they run the country, Der Standard is read by Austrians who think that they ought to run the country, while Die Presse is read by those Austrians who actually do run the country. Die Krone is read by Austrians who think that they know how the country ought in fact to be run, while Österreich is read by Austrians for whom Die Krone is just that little bit too high-brow. Over in La Grande Nation, Le Figaro is read by the French who love Sarkozy, La Liberation by the French who hate him and Le Monde by the French who naively wish the debate was less about Sarkozy than the state of France itself. In fairest Albion, meanwhile, the Guardian is read by Britons who are confused as to why they are not running the country eleven years after they thought they would be, and The Times is read by those who actually still do. The Daily Telegraph is read by Britons who want to know why the government's social policy is not that of Victorian England, while the Daily Mail is read by those who want to know what the government's social policy will be next week. The Independent is read by Britons whose interest in current affairs extends no further than front-page splashes of planetary doom, while the Daily Express is read by those whose interest in current affairs extends no further than how Princess Diana was killed, by whom and why. The Financial Times, in contrast, is read by those whose interest in current affairs runs so deep that they happily spend the sunniest days of the year so far chained to a laptop writing articles about newspapers.

But what of the DA News Review, whose heart beats in Vienna, but whose purview extends across the globe? What can be said of those who feverishly flick through its serried leaves? The readers of the DA News Review, by grappling with the collective wisdom of the world's finest young minds as they train for their future international careers, seek tomorrows answers to the problems of today. Who knows where humanity will find itself in 200,000 years? Wherever it goes, the DA News Review will be right there with it, charting its progress, and guiding its path. We hope you'll be with us for at least some of the journey to come.